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Day 8: Fez to Marrakesh

Michael Palin - SaharaA troupe of snake charmers with wild hair and staring eyes tries to provoke old and tired cobras into displays of aggression, playing pipes at them with ferocious intensity. A squad of lethargic transvestites dances lazily, clicking finger cymbals without much conviction. Not that they need to do much more than that. Judging by the size of the crowds around them, the very fact of a man dressed as a woman is deeply fascinating to Moroccans. There are fortune-tellers, fire-eaters and boxers prepared to take on all-comers. Performing monkeys, chained and skinny, will be thrust on you for photographs. Berber acrobats hurl each other around while their colleagues work the crowd with equal agility. There are self-taught dentists, astrologers and men who let scorpions loose across their faces.

Women do not seem to take much part in these entertainments, but they form the majority of the beggars, moving silently through the crowd, sleeping children on their shoulders, palms outstretched.

The Djemaa el-Fna is part fairground, part theatre, part zoo, underscored with a frisson of mysticism and primitive ritual.

Despite my appetite for all things strange and wonderful, I feel more and more of an outsider as the evening wears on and the hysteria mounts, stoked by the constant thudding of drums, squealing of pipes and blasts from brass horns. Repetitive, remorseless rhythms shred away the layers of consciousness until you either give in or, as I did, flee the whole madness and retreat to the wonderful world of bland resort hotels.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 8
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Marrakesh
  • Book page no: 44

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